Monday, April 2, 2012

Games as a collaborative art

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Alan Owen. Alan makes video games for a living at Plug-in Media. Amongst his claims to fame are working on two BAFTA award winning games (I and II), and making games specifically for the BBC and the Tate gallery. Alan and I happen to share the same Scottish grandparents and while I was in England recently we found time to catch up. One of the things we chatted about was Barnabas' earlier guest post on whether video games are art. Here are Alan's thoughts on where you can find the aesthetic in games...]

The tactic of ‘logical defusal’: Denied.

In direct answer to the question ‘can video games be classed as art?’, my first draft of this post summarised a need to be rigorously clear in our definition of the terms ‘game’ and ‘art’. This is an important point to make, because it is very easy to concisely answer the question with an explicit and limited definition of each term, and an application of simple logic! The answer to the salient question is directly related to the individual asking it, and to their particular phrasal of definition: “does this ‘game’ (as I define the term) constitute ‘art’ (as I define the term)?”. Rigorously enforced definition empowers one to slice through that ‘unknown quantity’ of subjectivity, and simply get on with things...

This was, alas, seen to be a bit of a cop-out, and hence deeper thought stimulated by my diligent editor! I took such constructive criticism amicably, because Shaun hit me with a very valid point - in sidestepping the question, I’d cheated myself (and the reader) out of any enlightenment that might have been forthcoming from an appraisal of aesthetics, ‘the philosophy of the nature of art’, as it relates to the video game. So, without recourse to disarming logic: are games art?

Collaborative art

I’d like to entertain a more suitable classification for video games as a form of collaborative art, by which I mean ‘art’ executed by a number of individuals working cooperatively to create some coherent entity. In my day to day job I both participate in, and perceive other people around me, diligently working each within their own sphere of expertise to realise some greater goal: a creative digital entity that has (generally) the primary purpose of entertainment. Within my own company, the scale of such projects is relatively small (carrying a budget to match), but big games are big business, with an industry on a scale comparable to Hollywood moviemaking. What do such video games give to humanity that makes them worthwhile, beyond just a means to waste time?

Aesthetic value can be manifest in many ways within a video game, but this value can sometimes be rather hidden from the casual player or spectator. In the following paragraphs I’ll shine a light upon just some such ‘artistic’ modalities that I am conscious of when I play a video game - travelling through layers of progressively less visible aesthetics and into my own domain; the invisible.

The obviously visible:

Immediately appreciable is a wealth of aesthetic value to be found on the level of the visual and aural, in simply looking at and listening to a video game. Such creative elements have typically been handmade by a large number of skilled makers; draftsmen, sculptors, painters, sound designers, musicians and composers, each artists in their own right by traditional use of the term. Games even offer a stage to those skilled in theatre set design (establishing scenes as diverse as deep caves, to the cold depths of interstellar space) and fashion design (creating outfits for characters within the game world). Also visible, though perhaps less obvious, is the aesthetic of animation behind said game characters. An animator is a special class of maker who well appreciates the nuances of acting, and can project emotion onto their maquettes, ‘bringing them to life’ in the most convincing way with prescribed body dynamics.

In all of the above, there is generally a tangible overriding mood or theme, be it dark solace or joyous fun - a ‘meta-art’ piece maintained by the role of a director or producer.

The less obviously visible:

Great games are backed by equally great writers. The Half-Life series of games are as good as they are because the core concept is upheld by a great story, delivered chapter by chapter in a believable and always exciting way.

There is psychology behind great game experiences too; the game is often a play, with the player cast as lead performer. However, in this show the lead can’t be fully expected to know his or her lines when they step onto the stage - it is the job of the entire cast (and even the set design and lighting) to help the lead both realise and fulfill their expected role. The player experience has been deliberately composed, but unlike a musical score, which once recorded will always play back exactly as it was set out, a game experience is fluid and dynamic, often changing with subsequent replays - there is real art in the design of this experience, which would be ascribed in part to the role of the game designer.

The not-so-obvious:

Behind the final delivery of a game is a wealth of conceptual artistry, which can often be quite breathtaking. Such works hint at the creative process occurring behind the scenes during the production of a game - the making and evolving of concepts into virtual reality. To be found amongst such work are studies in the ‘ancient’ art form of creature and character design. Creativity in this department is central to the making of some of the most popularly immersive games, like Shadow of the Colossus, which pits the player against massive, screen-filling behemoths. Interestingly, video games can even make an emotive character out of an inanimate object - check out Portal’s Weighted Companion Cube.

Whilst a director maintains coherence across visual aspects of a game, the technical department’s execution of the dynamical simulation must also be sympathetic to the same standard. When you mash the accelerator button in response to a green light on a beautiful and realistically drawn virtual racing game, only to be rewarded with a tangibly unrealistic physical response, the visual artistry will come to seem utterly pretentious alongside such ‘comical’ physics, for example. There is also a sense of fun to be distilled out from a simple mechanical action (like pressing a button); and the dynamical response goes a very long way in delivering this. Check out Angry Birds - the physics of catapulting a bird (and ensuing destruction) just feels right - ignoring the real aim of this game, the physical simulation constitutes a ‘beautiful’ toy in it’s own right!

The invisible:

Stepping through the veil into the realm of the aesthetic ‘invisible’, I’d like to first mention game testing. Put simply, testing is the process of ‘breaking’ a game before it is released, and telling someone so that they can fix it before delivery. I perceive there to be a real art in in the process however, the role takes a degree of talent, even - good testers are smart, switching between ‘casual’ play, or else actively seeking a fault where they think there might be one to discover. Testers are often also good technical writers, able to constructively and explicitly detail a flaw in a way most constructive to the department responsible for its repair.

I conclude this brief journey with a mention of game coding, my own sphere of expertise. When I write code, I know when I am cheating, being lazy, or onto something really smart. Likewise, I can read another programmer’s work and see when they have had a bad day, or else a stroke of genius. Sometimes there is unexpected direction in another’s code that later comes to seem wonderfully appropriate, making me smile, even - code does read like poetry!

I abuse the word ‘elegance’ a lot in my day job - because elegance in code is a very real thing - an ‘aesthetic’ property of the technical realm. Here’s a really simple example to give a flavour of what I mean: Consider the problem of sorting laundry. You get back from the launderette with a mountain of clothing: tee-shirts, trousers, boxer shorts, someone else’s pants (how did that get in there!?). You have the unenviable task of sorting said pile into appropriate places in your dorm - how might you go about this task?

You could just dive in and grab an item at random, assess what it is and where it should go, and immediately deliver it the the appropriate place: comedy boxers - cupboard, top shelf, on the left. Once delivery has been executed, return to the pile and grab another random item. Repeat process until pile is gone.

You can probably see inefficiency in this process however - we are repeating trips to deliver items to similar locations many times over before the pile is gone. A better solution would be to sort the pile ‘in-situ’ into smaller piles, each mentally labelled with their destination:

Grab an item at random, assess what it is (a shirt, say), put it into the pile destined for the wardrobe. Repeat until the original pile has been sorted into smaller, destination specific piles, then finally perform the delivery of each pile to the relevant destinations.

What I have just described are two simple algorithms, where one is more elegant (in this case displaying an acknowledgement of the importance of efficiency in workflow) than the other. Writing such processes is a small part of a programmer’s job, and when more complicated tasks are at hand, quality and inspirational engineering solutions can be found. Difficult problems also require creative solutions; to give a personal example, not too long ago I came up with a system to track the motion of a user’s hand via the image feed from their webcam for a project commissioned by the Tate gallery (you can play the game here) - though I shouldn’t take too much credit for ‘inventing’ the tracking system - it merely represents my technical reflection on academic studies of the way a fly’s eye works.

Developers don’t just write the code that makes the game, they also write the tools that enable the game designers and artists to deliver their own artistry! Sometimes these tools get released into the public domain, and players themselves can use them to realise their own machinations within the game universe.

In conclusion

I’d like to repeat here a quote from the book Game Art, the graphic art of computer games; though the authors fail to give an original reference, the quote has some resonance with my feelings on video games as art:

A woman observered J.M.W. Turner as he painted. “I’ve never seen a sunset like that Mr. Turner.” She said. 
He replied, “Yes, Madam, but don’t you wish you had?”

- Video games are a medium not just to recreate the real, but also to create the hyper-real or deliberately surreal. When the entire spectrum of parts from visible to invisible works together in beautiful synchronicity, we have a fractalinear exposition of collaborative artistry - aesthetics all the way down!

Art within art

Whilst the question of whether video games are art might still be classed as a current debate, games are themselves sometimes a medium for internalised artistic pieces! I’d like to leave the reader with a concrete example from recent months, made with Minecraft. This ‘simple’ game can in part be considered a massive virtual lego set. What Minecraft can do which Lego cannot however, is simulate basic logical components - these can be assembled into digital machines crafted using the medium of the game. It doesn’t get much more introspective, and in my opinion, artistic, than this.

About the author

Alan studied Biology at Undergraduate, then Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems at Masters level, both at Sussex University. He is now employed as Lead Developer at Plug-in Media, where he makes branded web and mobile video games for kids.


  1. A colleague of mine just shared this blog with me on the subject of the classification of video games as a medium - interesting stuff:

    1. Thanks inductible, that is a really interesting blog. I've finally gotten around to adding it to our blogroll.